COVID-19 Changes Work in Germany

by Thomas Klikauer and Nadine Campbell

covid germany

In a great workplace, most people would work independently of their immediate boss, and they might even like what they do. Having enough time and being flexible is increasingly more important to many employees in Germany. Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, there were more and more German companies that started to realise that the work of the future does not lie in a distant future any longer. Recent changes in work arrangements in Germany are not all about technology, albeit technologies such as Zoom, cloud computing, platform works, and algorithms have aided recent changes in German work arrangements.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, German companies and corporations have started to realise that work can be done very differently from how it was done in the past. What is happening in Germany no longer lies in the distant future. It is happening today. Since early 2020, nobody had a fixed work desk at Cologne’s headquarters of the European insurance giant AXA. Those few employees who still come into the office and do not work from home enter AXA’s open-plan offices – not a good idea during a global pandemic. AXA’s office is nicely furnished with fake forest wallpaper and basketball baskets. Those few arriving in the morning, look for a desk that has not been occupied – which is plenty nowadays. AXA’s “no desk policy” applies equally to everyone, whether the head of Germany’s subsidiary, departmental bosses, and it even applies to students on an internship.

However, Germany not only experiments with new work designs, Germany, as expected, has plenty of regulations when it comes to working hours. For example, employees at a Bielefeld digital agency Rheingans have been working only five hours a day since 2017 instead of eight. During this time, the company did not go bankrupt. Instead, it has managed to accomplish the same workload. Beyond that, employees get the same salary. Every day after 1 pm, workers have plenty of time for social activities, outings, hobbies, friends, family, and volunteering.

Germany’s medical technology manufacturer Braun is currently testing an organisational model in which – instead of following the classical managerialist structure of departmental hierarchies –employees can volunteer to participate in what Braun calls team circles. These flat-hierarchy teams engage in large and new projects and are organised in a self-managed manner. However, top management’s control has not disappeared.

Core changes such as this have emerged in recent work re-arrangements in Germany. To some extent, these transformations have altered Germany’s traditionally rigid hierarchical patterns of work. For several years now, the concept of flat organisational structures has been making the rounds in corporate boardrooms, management conferences, academic publications, and in corporate team coaching. In Germany, this new approach to work is seen as an answer to the question of what work can look like in a digitised and increasingly individualistic corporate world. German supporters of flatter organisational structures are convinced that the era of all-controlling managers hiding behind office doors and on top floors is largely over.

Virtually, the same goes for the classic – i.e. highly inflexible – 9-to-5 working day as well as for rigid corporate structures so profoundly ingrained into Germany’s work psyche. No longer might there be a hierarchy of managerial levels in a pyramid-like organisation chart with the CEO as a rule. The time in which new ideas are only implemented after they have been tested down to the last detail should also be over. The Coronavirus pandemic has changed that. Some German companies and corporations are moving towards a greater tolerance for trial-and-error tests for new corporate structures. Old inflexibilities are quickly being eliminated.

According to one recent study, 74% of German companies have put the topic of work re-organisation on the corporate agenda. Some even talk about an epochal upheaval in Germany’s work arrangements. This might transform German office work for good. Given recent developments, this might well be a serious trend. What will be required in the future are plenty of companies that realise they can no longer avoid very serious changes to the way work is done. In many German offices, people are starting to recognise that rigid hierarchical forms of organisation simply no longer work.

In some cases, German companies simply have to react to the demands of employees as well as the Coronavirus pandemic and change their organisational structure. Often these changes or some of them will remain into the future. Many people in Germany’s white-collar workforce want to engage, to contribute ideas. They want to be more flexible when it comes to working hours and a better work-life balance. Germany’s labour market has been moving in this direction for years.

Even in Germany, more and more people are working part-time. Part-time work was just a tick over 14% in 1990. But today, it is almost a third of Germany’s entire workforce. Like everywhere, German women, in particular, have been driving this change. Almost half of them work part-time. Still, men, especially younger men, are slowly catching up. 11.5% of all men were employed part-time in 2019 compared to just 2% in the early 1990s.

The departure from Germany’s traditional 40-hour week – already a fact in Germany’s powerful metal industry since the 1990s – fits two further facts. Since 1990, the productivity of every hour worked in Germany has grown by almost half – unlike wages! This indicates automation, robotics but also work intensification. On the downside, Germans also work longer and longer as they get older. This also indicates a trend toward further work intensification. But overall, Germany is in the midst of a massive redistribution of work. The new flexibility, combined with a very serious increase in working from home, is supported by a serious desire to spend less time commuting to work. But these trends are neither universal nor evenly spread.

In most cases, German white-collar work remains tied to fixed working hours. Until the Coronavirus pandemic, office work was still locked in a specific location – the office. With the possibilities of digitised work and a serious push from the Coronavirus pandemic, German bosses have realised that these old forms of work are no longer working. Furnished by IT, the need for employees to work in a specific location is vastly diminishing. Cloud computing has facilitated this move even further. Some German work experts already believe this is the end of the classic office.

Still, work will continue to mean that there are specific work processes to be followed, and there will also be places where you can meet – virtually or physically. The Coronavirus pandemic has given these changes a very significant boost. Suddenly, some of Germany’s relatively rigid corporate executives have become somewhat open to questioning the need for a physical presence. The Coronavirus pandemic and the rise of Zoom has also challenged the need for business trips. Contrary to what many thoughts, the topic of new work arrangements not only concerns Germany’s relatively tiny group of start-ups and digital agencies. Greater flexibility applies to many companies, and it applies to small business companies with less than 500 employees.

The main reason why these changes are well received is that they fit perfectly with employees’ desire for greater self-determination and meaningful work. This applies particularly to young and highly qualified Germans just entering the world of work. Outsourcing, automation, and an increased used of robots have eliminated plenty of strenuous, dangerous, and monotonous tasks. Outsourcing, automation and an overall move towards the service industry has given employees some opportunities to develop rather freely. This utopia has been as old as automation itself.

During the early 1930S, the economist John Maynard Keynes assumed that workers would only have to work three hours a day. That did not quite materialise. Later, the same optimism was found in the work of the philosopher Jeremy Rifkin. He also assumed that the increase in production through digitisation would make large parts of conventional work superfluous. But the reality of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic is far more depressing than Keynes assumed. Keynes wasn’t able to foresee the Coronavirus pandemic. As the Coronavirus pandemic hit economy after economy, millions of workers around the world are facing unemployment. Many workers have lost their jobs because of the Corona pandemic, and many will continue to do so.

What has been shown, once again in the current crisis, is that it is precisely those professions that are indispensable to social life – health workers, for example – that are often the ones that are furthest away from the aforementioned new forms of work. In many of these professions, employees would be happy if the same altering rigidity of working time would apply to them as well as the 40-hour workweek they are expected to work.

Long before the Coronavirus crisis, it became clear that even in Germany, its steady rise in productivity has not been possible without exhausting (over)work. In addition, Germany has the largest low-wage sector in Europe. Nearly eight million people – more than one in five working people in Germany – earn less than €11.40 (US$ 14.-) per hour in 2018. Most of these are women. Many are forced to take on multiple jobs to get by.

Current developments led to the question, whether the hope of decent work and space for self-development, in the midst of tougher global competition and a global crisis, will remain an illusion. In many German companies and corporations, there are still rigid power structures occupied by Germany’s corporate apparatchiks. These cannot be discussed away. All the much-trumpeted hype about new organisational models, flatter hierarchies and trust should not obscure this.

For a very long time, many have not understood why the move to new forms of work proceeded so slowly in Germany. German managers remain highly sceptical about new forms of work compared to their non-German counterparts. Perhaps, one should be very clear about this. The main task of companies is not to create decent work, to design work sensibly, and to make work humane. Ever since Karl Marx, this remains the truth even though many people don’t like to hear that.

The central purpose of a company is to make profits and to satisfy its customers. Many German companies and corporations and their corporate apparatchiks have no interest in meaningful work arrangements, cooperation, working closely with Germany’s trade unions and works councils, as well as extending Germany’s well-known co-determination. Instead, Germany’s rigid managers merely ensure that the corporate mission is carried out as quickly, as efficiently, and as cheaply as possible. In other words, work arrangements are nothing more than an element to gain even greater efficiency, productivity, and profit-maximisation.

Perhaps German companies and corporations would be well advised to mentally separate internal work organisation and cooperation from its customers. If German managers fail to create good and decent working conditions, workers and trade unions might – one day – be powerful enough to enforce such changes onto Germany’s corporate apparatchiks. As for today, the trend is in the opposite direction. In Germany, like in many other countries, the number of jobs without collective bargaining coverage is increasing.

During the 1980s, more than a third of all German workers were still organised in trade unions. Today, it is well below 20% and union membership is concentrated in old industries, and union members themselves are on the older side of Germany’s age pyramid. Worse, the number of jobs without collective bargaining has increased from 24% to 43% between 1998 and 2018. Not surprisingly, those German workers with the weakest trade unions representation are workers with the lowest wages. It pays to be a union member, and that is why capital fights tooth and nail against trade unions. Unlike workers, they know what they are doing just as Warren Buffet said,

“There’s class warfare, all right,

but it’s my class, the rich class,

that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

But even among the young, well-educated knowledge workers of the digital economy, trade unions no longer have a good standing. Worse, new work arrangements may even reinforce the de-unionisation trend. One reason is that to many younger workers, trade unions have been made to appear unnecessary and old-fashioned. To rely on collective bargaining and trade unions has been removed from their mind-set.

Unknowingly, these young professionals are taking a new risk. The home office can quickly become home sourcing – like outsourcing. Once executives and their corporate apparatchiks realise that it doesn’t really matter where their employees are located, the idea to replace them with freelancers workers or “home sources” from other countries like China, India, Romania, etc. where wage levels are much lower, is a short step. Given the way, the mind of many corporate apparatchiks work, this is a real danger.

With the Coronavirus pandemic and new work arrangements on the horizon, old contradictions between capital and labour have not gone away. Much of this is at the heart of a manifesto on the Future of Work after Corona signed by more than 3,000 scientists worldwide– including Thomas Piketty, Rahel Jaeggi, and Nancy Fraser. In mid-May this year, it was simultaneously published in dozens of media outlets around the world – in the midst of the Corona crisis. The need for such a manifesto has shown that employees are still seen as an interchangeable resource. In reality, employees remain the key to the success of employers and even more so for those who invest their work, their health, and their life in a company.

To achieve decent work in a post-Coronavirus world, stakeholders must formulate a clear and comprehensible vision of what a world of work of the future should look like. Work should be more flexible. But it should not fall behind the achievements of current labour regulations and labour laws. Most importantly, the transformation process towards digitalisation, working from home, etc. needs to be based on participation and the giving up of old and out-dated decision-making power currently still held by corporate apparatchiks. Corporate leaders should, for once, not hide that behind the smart but deceptive rhetoric of Managerialism.

Today, it is still a fact that employees are mostly excluded from the management of companies. Still, capital claims the right to manage without realising that it is getting in the way of an innovative workplace desperately needed for the future. The capital-labour contradiction remains the most important reasons for the stark imbalance when it comes to the governing of the workplace.

Beyond that, there is still the option of Taking Back the Economy. Truly participatory models for online platforms have already been developed. These are Platform Cooperatives. Among the many examples is New York’s Up & Go. At first glance, it appears like a standard App through which cleaners offer their services. At the surface, it operates at the same principle as it happens on platforms like Handy and Taskrabbit or Germany’s For the latter, it is customary in these corporate platforms to have no security, while workers hardly earn a minimum wage. As a viable alternative, there are collaborative platforms like Up & Go.

Up & Go‘s fifty cleaners are all immigrant women from South America. Unlike the corporate behemoths of the internet, they own the company. Up & Go’s workers pay 95% of the revenue to themselves. The rest goes to the digital infrastructure. When customers book an Up & Go service, the boss comes. All workers are the boss. Up & Go is an attempt to combine the best of two worlds of the global cooperative movement. For customers, it is easy to book help quickly through the App. For the female workers, there is the safety of a regular job and the pride of being an entrepreneur.

Yet, platform cooperatives make up only a tiny market share. Worse, not all will survive in competition with corporations behemoths like Uber, Germany’s Lieferando and others. These corporations have very little say on workers’ participation, cooperation, and co-determination.

This is precisely where the proposal of The Future of Work after Corona manifesto comes in. It proposes that states should issue job guarantees so that no one is forced to accept poor working conditions. Unsurprisingly, no other proposal in the manifesto has met with as much scepticism from the corporate business press. The elimination of unemployment seems to be unwanted. Capitalism always had unemployment. In fact, it thrives on unemployment so much so that a standard 5% unemployment rate is presented as “normal” and even healthy by many neoliberal economists.

Still, there is also strong support for states to underwrite a national job guarantee. It comes from a non-neoliberal macroeconomic perspective. Economies can be stabilised by such a job guarantee. After a slump in the economy, for example, – like the one during the current Corona crisis – workers and the economy do not have to contend with the negative consequences of job losses and reduced consumer demands. These benefits outweigh the potential cost of a state-issued job guarantee.

Such a guarantee can be a vital step towards unconditional basic income or UBI. UBI seeks to decouple work and income from life. Most likely, the vast majority of people would use their newfound UBI freedom for meaningful self-determined activities. Next to UBI, a regulated and state-supported labour market will continue to play a central role. On the way to UBI, a state-guaranteed job might be designed to eliminate the working poor. Even those highly skilled workers in Germany’s top companies may, at some point, ask themselves, why do we still have these dysfunctional, out-dated, anti-democratic structures at work?

Thomas Klikauer has 550 publications and is the author of Managerialism.

Nadine Campbell is the founder and CEO of Abydos Academy.



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